Low-dose metformin exposure causes changes in expression of endocrine disruption-associated genes

Aquat Toxicol. 2018 Feb;195:33-40. doi: 10.1016/j.aquatox.2017.12.003. Epub 2017 Dec 8.


The presence of intersex fish in watersheds around the world is a warning of the presence of anthropogenic endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) being deposited into the aquatic environment. The anti-diabetic drug metformin is among the most prevalent and ubiquitous of the myriad pharmaceuticals found in wastewater effluent and watersheds worldwide. In addition to its prescription for type-2 diabetes, metformin is indicated as a treatment in cancers and the endocrine disorder polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Our previous research found evidence of endocrine-disruption following Pimephales promelas (fathead minnow) exposure to metformin at an environmentally relevant concentration. However, the mechanism of action leading to these impacts is unknown. Although metformin does not structurally resemble classical EDCs, there's an increasing recognition that endocrine disruption may occur by mechanisms other than classical endocrine receptor binding, and metformin's off-label use for treating endocrine-related disorders such as PCOS indicates its potential interaction with the endocrine system. To further explore metformin's mechanism of action as an EDC, we measured expression of numerous endocrine-related genes in male fathead minnows exposed to metformin at a low-dose similar to that found in wastewater effluent and the environment (40 μg L-1) for a full year (early development to adulthood) and discovered significant upregulation of the AR (3.6 ± 0.9-fold), 3β-HSD (3.9 ± 0.8-fold), 17β-HSD (17 ± 4-fold), CYP19A1 (40 ± 20-fold), and SULT2A1 (2.3 ± 0.4-fold) genes in exposed male gonad. We also found a significant correlation between expression of 3β-HSD, 17β-HSD, and CYP19A1 in testis of metformin-treated male fish and the degree of intersex occurring in their gonads. These results provide additional evidence of the endocrine disrupting impact of the drug metformin and insight into the potential mechanisms by which metformin may influence the endocrine system in aquatic organisms.

Keywords: Contaminants of emerging concern; Endocrine disruption; Intersex; Metformin.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cyprinidae / blood
  • Cyprinidae / genetics*
  • Disorders of Sex Development
  • Endocrine Disruptors / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation* / drug effects
  • Male
  • Metformin / adverse effects*
  • Testis / drug effects
  • Testis / metabolism
  • Testosterone / blood
  • Vitellogenins / blood
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity


  • Endocrine Disruptors
  • Vitellogenins
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Testosterone
  • Metformin